Here's How Fans Are Resurrecting Beloved Cars From Retro Games In Modern Racing Sims

Illustration for article titled Here's How Fans Are Resurrecting Beloved Cars From Retro Games In Modern Racing Sims
Image: racer126 via Discord

The Assoluto Bisonte seen above weighed about 2,750 pounds in its 1999 race trim and derived its power from a mid-mounted pushrod V8 of 3 liters. The four different teams that ran it during the Real Racing Roots campaign that year quoted different power figures, though the most well-known example run by Racing Team Solvalou in the second heat of the Grand Prix churned out 256 horsepower, sending that to a 5-speed gearbox. More powerful evolutions employed six-speed transmissions.

Advertisement

This is the lore behind the car on the cover of R4 Ridge Racer Type 4, a 1998 racing game for the original PlayStation. It isn’t real of course, but the game’s designers at Namco drafted a sheet of specifications about the fictional Italian sports car that you’d never know about from playing the game. Rather, they were buried in strategy guides and marketing materials, often in Japanese.

R4's developers determined stats for all 45 unique models in the game, from the funky three-wheel Terrazi Wildboar to the “thermonuclear fusion-powered” Porsche 962-aping Lizard Nightmare. R4 was never intended to be a driving simulator, so this information existed purely for flavor. The game’s smooth-yet-rudimentary physics engine never would have been able to convey all the Bisonte’s qualities. But knowing these things — like knowing the stories behind the game’s teams, characters and manufacturers — built the world. Playing the game as a kid, the lore made everything feel real.

Today, a passionate group of fans, programmers, modelers and artists are rebuilding these beloved cars from their favorite racing games and bringing them to modern simulators, where they can be experienced at a depth that never would have been possible two decades ago. Where they can feel more real than they ever have before.

New Projects, Old Cars

Porting cars over to games that don’t have them is nothing new. Like adding custom maps or guns to a first-person shooter, this is just another way in which fans mod PC games — a practice that goes back as long as people have been playing games on their computers.

But it’s the purpose of these mods that differentiates what this particular group of tinkerers is doing. Their endeavors began with one person — an individual who goes by Xenn, who has been “ripping” (in other words, extracting) car models and other assets from racing games like Gran Turismo 2 for years, and publishing his findings on sites like GTPlanet. Xenn ripped a model of a Kamata Fiera — another Ridge Racer car — that another player, named Rich, came across and attempted to make drivable in Assetto Corsa, a popular and oft-modded sim racing game.

“My Assetto Corsa modding career started by doing a very sloppy, dirty and quick port of the Fiera from Ridge Racer 7 after seeing Xenn rip it,” Rich said. “It didn’t go very far though, given none of us had any form of experience at the time — especially me, who knows nothing about working on cars themselves — so I set it aside and instead just ported other models.”

Advertisement
A collection of the cars Rich has helped bring to Assetto Corsa from other franchises, including Ridge Racer, Burnout and Gran Turismo. Front and center, in red, is the Kamata Fiera; left of it is the Soldat Raggio.
A collection of the cars Rich has helped bring to Assetto Corsa from other franchises, including Ridge Racer, Burnout and Gran Turismo. Front and center, in red, is the Kamata Fiera; left of it is the Soldat Raggio.
Image: Facepalm via Discord

This attracted the interest of another modder I spoke to, Sydney, who was encouraged by the efforts of his fellow racing game fans.

Advertisement

“A few months ago, Xenn managed to rip a few other RR cars and I was asked to dig my attempt back up,” Sydney told me. “While I was staring at the original failed attempt, Rich managed to get a janky version of the Fiera working, following the same tutorial I tried to. Fueled by slight jealousy — and, at the time, copious amounts of Jameson and curse words — I decided to give it a go myself. A couple hours later and I had a driving [Soldat] Raggio model in game!

“I was ecstatic and too drunk to care that the car was backwards, all the textures were messed up, it drove horribly, and the [normal maps] were completely ruined for the rear wheels.”

Advertisement

Little did Sydney know that other Assetto Corsa players would be excited about his breakthrough.

“When I woke up the next day, I told myself I’d at least attempt to clean it up,” Sydney said. “Didn’t intend on going much further than a private mod, but it seemed to have caught the attention of most of [Discord server] Trackside and I was asked to post what I had. I did, and it rapidly became a team effort that evolved into what you see now.”

Advertisement

How To Build A Fake Car

Dropping a car from a 15-year-old racing game like Ridge Racer 7 into a modern sim like Assetto Corsa isn’t as simple as copying and pasting code. Every game is built differently and organizes its assets in a unique manner. And that’s before you even broach the massive gulf in quality comparing car models that looked satisfactory for 2006 with those built for a generation-newer game released in 2014.

Advertisement

“While players only see the 3D model, that’s only half the work, if not less,” one modder named Chris told me. “The model has to be broken down and rebuilt into several parts, to support several features and textures and materials to get the model visibly functional. 3D models in games like AC have what are basically invisible skeletons and joints that tell the game what’s the outside of a car, the inside. Doors, steering wheel, brakes, wheels — all that stuff has to be accounted for.”

Ridge Racer 7's Soldat Raggio is the car this group has made the most progress in porting to Assetto Corsa – it’s currently in alpha state and can be downloaded by anyone.
Ridge Racer 7's Soldat Raggio is the car this group has made the most progress in porting to Assetto Corsa – it’s currently in alpha state and can be downloaded by anyone.
Image: racer126 via Twitter
Advertisement

When I asked Sydney to discuss the work that goes into taking art made for one game and putting it into another, he told me to strap in. “This is going to take a while.”

“The original source models vary in quality from ‘pretty good’ to ‘oh my god, I want to tear my retinas out, this is so horrible!’ when we start,” Sydney told me. “Most of the RR stuff is sadly the latter, so this takes time to correct. One of us will prep the model by checking that textures show up correctly and the model is laid out in the correct format, and pointed the correct direction so it’s not backwards upon import. Normals may also need to be redone, which can seriously affect how the model looks in game.”

Advertisement

From there, some work is done to refine the interior, though Sydney notes “there’s only so much we can do with the source material we have.” Not surprising, considering that up until the days of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, many racing games lacked detailed interiors fit for cockpit camera view.

Following that is a “trial-and-error” stage of tweaking the parameters of the model in question so Assetto Corsa can accept it without crashing.

Advertisement

Then comes the fun part.

“Once the game can recognize it, driving physics can begin development,” Sydney explains. “Colliders are defined for wheels, beams are made for the suspension, and data is checked for the car next to the source material. For some machines, we are able to get a lot more precise data for engines, gear ratios, width, length, weight, engine size and cylinder head type, etcetera. But we aren’t always that lucky. The Raggio was a machine we had to take some creative liberties on.

Advertisement

“Calculating accurate suspension data and making it work is a massive process: Alignment of suspension arms is pivotal to good handling characteristics. You have to keep track of a whole host of variables and consult a series of calculators to make something from scratch.”

So rather than building the data for these parts from scratch, modders can copy existing components from other cars. But that doesn’t always save as much time as you’d think.

Advertisement
Official guide books, like this Ridge Racer Type 4 one published for the U.K., are often the best source of vehicle data for modders.
Official guide books, like this Ridge Racer Type 4 one published for the U.K., are often the best source of vehicle data for modders.
Photo: Adam Ismail

“You can rob parts off of other cars, yes, but don’t expect them to play nicely together without a fight!” Sydney added. “To get it rolling, it’s fine to rob bits off anything. Brakes are relatively simple, engines can be faked with a quick trek over to [car-building simulator] Automation for something ‘realistic,’ as can gear ratios. Tires are borrowed from cars which already have them, so we don’t need to make new ones immediately.”

Advertisement

In the home stretch, the process ends up going much like building a car in real life.

“Hours will be spent going back and forth, dialing in spring rates, camber, dampening, tire pressures, brake torque, aerodynamics and so much more to get it to be drivable,” Sydney said. “I find the best solution to that is to let everyone I can drive the car as hard as they can, as their feedback is critical to adjusting the car to go even faster.”

Advertisement

Beyond Accuracy

Sydney’s earlier point about “creative liberties” highlights a dilemma I was particularly curious about. Yes, sometimes specifications exist for these cars, though never quite enough to account for every single data point that would assure the most accurate recreation.

Advertisement

But what even is accuracy anyway, when you’re taking a car built for an arcade racing game where you drift around corners at 100 mph and adapting it for a state-of-the-art driving simulation? A vehicle like the aforementioned Bisonte would probably feel quite slow by modern standards — its specs making it a better adversary for a mid-’90s Japanese sports coupe than the Ferrari surrogate Namco intended it to be. Is there a temptation to make the car a bit livelier than the numbers make it seem?

Chris’ main work-in-progress is bringing the Assoluto Bisonte, known for its inclusion in Ridge Racer Type 4, to Assetto Corsa.
Chris’ main work-in-progress is bringing the Assoluto Bisonte, known for its inclusion in Ridge Racer Type 4, to Assetto Corsa.
Image: RXNFS via Discord
Advertisement

“We genuinely try to keep the data of the cars as accurate as possible to how they are measured in paraphernalia such as official works, books and websites,” a modder named Grandea told me. “This also depends actually, because currently when it comes to some cars, at least some data can’t exactly be replicated correctly.”

Grandea and Xenn pointed out that Ridge Racer’s treatment of gear ratios is unrealistic, leading to some gears topping out at inconceivable speeds – a good example of where a bit of massaging for real life is required. However, arcade racing games have defining quirks, like the ability to perform “rocket starts,” which may as well be launch control on steroids. Cleverly, the group has been able to find realistic methods and technologies to convey a somewhat evocative driving sensation in Assetto Corsa.

Advertisement

“When it came to creating the Raggio, we kind of had a small discussion on how exactly we were to make this handle,” Grandea told me. “I originally was on the mindset of making this realistic, but as soon as I created the rocket start system I went “screw it!” and committed to making this RR7 levels of crazy while having a fair bit of realistic logic applied to it, especially considering how you can’t really drift like you can in RR.

Advertisement

Thus, the Soldat Raggio in this group’s Assetto Corsa mod utilizes what Grandea describes as “a highly revamped hybrid KERS [Kinetic Energy Recovery] system.” A mainstay of modern high-level motorsport, nothing like KERS existed back when the Raggio first appeared in 2004's Ridge Racers for the PSP. It’s just one example of how modders reckon meshing the fictional worlds of arcade titles like Ridge Racer with the logic of simulators like Assetto Corsa.

Grandea created a KERS-type system to give the Raggio a type of “rocket start” – a nod to its roots.
Grandea created a KERS-type system to give the Raggio a type of “rocket start” – a nod to its roots.
Image: racer126 via Twitter
Advertisement

Ultimately, each modder brings a different attitude to their projects, Chris told me. That they’re constantly asking themselves and each other these questions — about the cars original intent, versus what could make it more invigorating to drive — is emblematic of the passion that makes their work stand out.

“Depending on who’s the project lead, it can go any number of ways!” Chris said. “With the Raggio, Syd and Grandea wanted something outrageous and completely off-the-wall, capturing the feeling of arcade physics and speed that Ridge Racer 7 had. And it worked out brilliantly, it’s an utter joy to drive at its limits.

Advertisement

“However, with the Bisonte I’m aiming for something much more real-world. ‘What if the car existed in reality? How would it drive, how would it look and feel?’ And the beauty of modding in a fictional car from an arcade racer is that neither direction we take is wrong.”

See It To Believe It

The end result is quite surreal for anyone like myself who grew up playing Ridge Racer. Among fans of games like it, there’s always a sense of intangibility with these machines — they’re iconic as any beloved enthusiast car, but only to a select few.

Advertisement

Placing them in Assetto Corsa’s simulated reality legitimizes them, in a way. It makes them feel like something that could exist. And it allows fans to have their Superman versus Goku moment, asking each other “who you got?” in a battle across automotive universes.

It also broadens the visibility of obscure, fake cars from decades-old racing games to perhaps inspire a new generation of fans.

Advertisement

What’s next for this group, then? Surely refining projects they’ve already started, including those Ridge Racer cars, like the Raggio, Bisonte and Fiera. “You don’t wanna see what I did to Mario Kart,” Rich warned me. What other games and vehicles are they eyeing?

Rich namedropped Burnout as a franchise with a catalog of fictional cars worth porting, and teased “more obscure pieces of machinery” he’s set his sights on. I raised the suggestion of a full roster of Ridge Racer V’s six main cars, to make a true Ridge Racer series possible within the game.

Advertisement
Rich has ported the Rivelta Crinale (or “Devil Car”) from Ridge Racer V to Mario Kart 8.
Rich has ported the Rivelta Crinale (or “Devil Car”) from Ridge Racer V to Mario Kart 8.
Screenshot: Facepalm via Discord

But naturally, such an endeavor would benefit from bringing some tracks over, too.

Advertisement

“Tracks are definitely not out of the question, I can say that for certain,” Xenn said. “Obviously there’s going to be much more work that’ll be needed for them, but again, not out of the question.”

Not only are tracks not out of the question — some modders are already pursuing them. One has gotten pretty far along in bringing Ridge Racer’s fan-favorite Seaside Route 765 course into Assetto Corsa. If watching a Bisonte lap Mugello Circuit is surreal, watching a Mazda DPi run rings around the prototypical Ridge Racer course is absurd.

Advertisement

“We’re all video game nerds at heart,” Sydney said “and I think I can safely say we all wanted to do something with Ridge Racer cars for some time. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the creative fuel sparked to life the project that’s gotten us here.”

Staff Writer at Jalopnik. 2017 Fiesta ST. Wishes NASCAR was more like Daytona USA.

DISCUSSION

yesidrivea240
Yes I drive a 240... Sort of

I get it, but at the same time, most of the cars in these games are based off real cars (and generally share driving characteristics) so I’d prefer to see something a little more interesting brought over. Twisted Metal seems like it’s ripe for this.